Pros and Cons for English as a National Language

As with any idea or belief, having English adopted as a national language is not without controversy.  There are compelling reasons why an individual may be for or against this idea.  The movement to add an amendment to the Constitution making English the national language has been brought up before Congress for many years.

H.J. Res. 16 (107th Congress) was brought up before the House of Representatives: The English language shall be the official language of the United States. As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public acts including every order, resolution, vote, or election, and for all records and judicial proceedings of the Government of the United States and the governments of the several States.

Also introduced in the 107th Congress was this text from H.R. 3333: The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English.

Precedence against a national language was set in 1780 when it was agreed that to have one would be undemocratic.  The ACLU finds that a national language would be unconstitutional and would violate an individual’s right to due process. Congress voted against a national language by a very narrow margin and this issue is expected to arise in 2010.

Proponents for a national language cite the money spent in the areas of education and translation.  Passing the amendment would protect school districts from lawsuits from families who feel a school is not doing enough to teach a child to speak English, and would eliminate the expense of bilingual education.  On a national level, money would be saved on translation and printing of public materials. 

In 2006, James Crawford, director of the Institute for Language and Education Policy (ILEP), spoke before the House Means and Ways Committee against English as a national language.  The view of ILEP is that a national language is unnecessary because the English language is already spoken by the vast majority of the U. S. population, punitive because it would threaten the rights and welfare  of people  who inhabit this country including citizens who are not quite proficient in English, and pointless because it offers no practical assistance and takes away public programs that offer assistance to those trying to learn the language.  Adopting a national language could also be divisive and exacerbates tension between ethnic and minority groups, inconsistent with American values, and self-defeating in an era of globalization where language resources should be developed, not suppressed.  

The organization “Pro English” based out of Arlington, VA feels that having English as a national language, “to promote the use of English to allow communication, understanding, and empathy between different groups of people who share a common citizenship and territory,” would be positive for the relationships between cultures in the United States. It is also felt that a national language is symbolic from the stance that people new to the country have to understand there are responsibilities as well as benefits in living the in the United States.

If a national language was put into law, immigrants would feel pressured to abandon their native language in exchange for English in their homes.  When a language is abandoned, so is part of the speaker’s culture.  Because of globalization, languages are becoming extinct because they are not being used.  Some languages do not have direct translations, so in order for a family to share their history they must share in their native language.  If the language is lost, so is a part of history.

Proponents for a national language counter that belief by saying that making English the official language does not mean other languages cannot be used in day to day private life.  It also doesn’t mean that in emergency circumstances translation would not be provided.  The melting pot of America would work better if we shared a common language, uniting citizens with immigrants.  “Common sense tells us that teaching English would also benefit the United States so that services could be provided in English only.” (Crawford, Official English Testimony)

retrieved:  7/12/2009, Say Pro English, Not English Only

retrieved: 7/14/09,  U.S. Constitution Online

retrieved: 7/13/09,   OFFICIAL ENGLISH LEGISLATION: BAD FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, BAD FOR AMERICA’S INTERESTS, AND EVEN BAD FOR ENGLISH, Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Education Reform




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